Comprehensive Guide to

People-Pleasing Psychology

Most humans carry an urge to please others, after all we are naturally social creatures and most of us feel pleasure when we make others happy. It’s unfortunately common for the people-pleaser urge to overshadow the attention we put on ourselves and other important people in our lives that are not a current focus of our people-pleasing urge.

People-pleasing psychology is finally getting more attention in psychological research as it is found to be connected to a large number of mental health disorders and productivity problems in the workplace. We take a deeper look at what causes people-pleaser behavior, what the dangers are to you, your people and even your bottom line and what you can do about it.

People Pleaser Psychology
People Pleasers at work tend to be very busy, yet rarely get to be productive in their own work. As a result they rarely hit personal goals, frequently let down their co-workers, become resentful and burn out in the end.

The People Pleaser

A people-pleaser is someone who habitually prioritizes the desires and needs of others above their own, often at the expense of their own well-being. They tend to avoid conflict and seek approval by going to great lengths to satisfy those around them, even if it means neglecting their own boundaries and personal fulfillment. This behavior can lead to feelings of resentment, burnout, and a lack of authenticity in relationships.

In the field of psychology, people pleasing is part of the Big 5 trait “Agreeableness” and is characterized by a maladaptive motivation to confirm to others’ wishes at some expense to one’s own well-being.

Micki Fine Living Mindfully
Micki Fine, M.Ed., L.P.C.

We highly recommend the approach of exploring your past to understand how you came to be a people-pleaser and practicing personal exercises in setting healthy boundaries. One imminent expert in the field of people-pleasing psychology is Micki Fine, and her book The Need to Please does exactly these things.

How Does One Become a People-Pleaser?

People that exhibit an unhealthy need to please others often carry fears of being abandoned, unloved and/or unsuccessful and these fears often stem from personal experiences. Most commonly people that have been emotionally neglected or left physically alone as a child with minimal physical contact or emotional support become adults with fears of abandonment and adopt the belief that self-sacrifice is the only way to deserve love or acceptance.
It’s also noted that there is evidence from several studies that the trait of agreeableness can be genetically inherited and that some people have a bias to want to please others, although to date scientists have not been able to narrow down which specific genes are responsible for this tendency. Studies of neuro-plasticity show that people are capable of developing new habits and form new neuro pathways to greatly reduce the tendency to please others over time.

Child neglect and people pleasing psychology
Emotional and physical neglect during childhood or as an early adult is often associated with people-pleasing psychology.

What Does People-Pleasing Look Like?

People-pleasers tend to be agreeable, accommodating, submissive, obedient, apologetic and over-extended.

Although outward appearances may be deceiving, there is a big difference between someone who is generous and someone who unhealthily or compulsively self-sacrifices in order to please others.

Ask Yourself:

  • Do you go to great lengths to avoid conflicts?
  • Do you feel like the word ‘no’ just doesn’t come to mind when someone asks you to do something?
  • When others are angry or sad, do you feel unnecessarily responsible?
  • Are you eager to put the blame of a group’s problems on yourself?
  • Do you find yourself becoming a social chameleon, mirroring the way others behave in social situations?
  • Do you agree outwardly with others when you don’t inside?

What Do Healthy Emotional Boundaries Look Like?

People with healthy boundaries are assertive, self-aware and confident. As an outcome, they avoid becoming overextended or resentful and therefore have greater abilities of being emotionally balanced, empathetic and respectful.

How Common are People-Pleasing Disorders?

People-pleasing disorders tend to affect women more than men with 56% of women saying that they describe themselves as people-pleasers to the point of putting others’ needs before their own. 42% of men describe themselves this way with an average of 49% saying that they ‘definitely’ describe themselves this way (YouGov study of 1000 respondents). 

These respondents were likely to report being unable to say “no” to people, feeling responsible for how others feel, struggled to establish clear boundaries with others, apologized unnecessarily, mirrored the behavior of others in social situations and had a hard to recognizing how they actually felt about something.

What's the Difference Between Generosity and People-Pleasing?

People that give or sacrifice out of sincere generosity do so with confidence and with no expectation of recompense and so they are often quick to forget about the good turns they’ve recently done for others. People pleasers on the other hand struggle to let go and can’t help but fixate on the sacrifice they just performed. People pleasers are often seeking some form of control over a social situation or relationship and the appearance of generosity as well as the expected social outcomes of giving are an important aspect of the act of giving.

Groundhogs Day People Pleasing Example
In Groundhog Day (1993), Bill Murray's Character choreographs an entire day to inauthentically please Andie MacDowell's character.
Bill Murray's character suffers mental health problems after unsuccessfully seeking love through people-pleasing.
Bill Murray's character suffers mental health problems after unsuccessfully seeking love through people-pleasing.

Although the movie Groundhog Day takes these concepts to extremes that would clinically be considered extreme sociopathic behavior, it serves as a nice illustration of the difference between people-pleasing and authentic generosity. In the movie, Bill Murray’s character relives the same day over and over and uses the opportunity to become Andie McDowell’s character’s ideal love interest. After memorizing french poetry, becoming a skilled ice-carving artist, learning advanced piano, etc. he realizes that people-pleasing is not only an ineffective way of drawing affection from McDowell’s character, it proves to destroy Bill Murray’s mental health and already-fragile sense of self-worth.

Read the full analysis of Groundhog Day‘s unexpected life lessons.

Quick Reads on

People Pleasing Psychology

Personality Neuroscience and the Agreeable Trait
"Agreement" is a trait category within Personality Neuroscience and behaviors can be traced back to childhood experience of acceptance and nurturing.

Personality Psychology: The "Agreeableness" Trait

The field of Personality Neuroscience uses the concept of the “Big Five” when describing personality traits that can be both inherited but are also changeable to some extent. Agreeableness is one of the Big Five traits and is an essential advancement in human evolution and cooperation. The ability for a person to change habits, thinking patterns and behaviors is known as neuro-plasticity. The field of personality neuroscience has proven that genetic disposition plays a role in how agreeable we are, and yet we are able train our neural networks to be more empathetic, compassionate and agreeable.

The same way we train our brains by going through the motions of who we want to become, we can learn to create healthy emotional boundaries at work, home and other social situations.

Possibly Perfect For You:
Living Connected: An Introvert's Guide to Friendship
Living Connected: An Introvert's Guide to Friendship

Quick Reads on

Impulse Control